Scientists ‘euphoric’ over promise of mind-controlled robotic arm

scientists euphoric over promise of mind controlled robotic arm braingate2

For most of us, reaching out and picking up a bottle of water to have a drink is such a simple task that we aren’t even capable of taking it for granted. It just happens. Consciously, we barely register the action, as it’s just that engrained in our existence, and requires so little focus and thought. However, there are many people for whom this simple action is impossible. For people like this, an ongoing study at Rhode Island’s Brown University holds an immense amount of promise.

The study, dubbed BrainGate2, seeks to aid the disabled by implanting a small microchip in the motor cortex of their brains that effectively allows them to control a robotic arm with their thoughts. Brown University’s official press release offers an in-depth explanation:

A 58-year-old woman (“S3”) and a 66-year-old man (“T2”) participated in the study. They had each been paralyzed by a brainstem stroke years earlier which left them with no functional control of their limbs. In the research, the participants used neural activity to directly control two different robotic arms, one developed by the DLR Institute of Robotics and Mechatronics and the other by DEKA Research and Development Corp., to perform reaching and grasping tasks across a broad three-dimensional space. The BrainGate2 pilot clinical trial employs the investigational BrainGate system initially developed at Brown University, in which a baby aspirin-sized device with a grid of 96 tiny electrodes is implanted in the motor cortex — a part of the brain that is involved in voluntary movement. The electrodes are close enough to individual neurons to record the neural activity associated with intended movement. An external computer translates the pattern of impulses across a population of neurons into commands to operate assistive devices, such as the DLR and DEKA robot arms used in the study now reported in Nature.

Though this sort of thing has been standard fare in science fiction for decades, the actual mechanics of creating a system like this is exceedingly complicated. The researchers long ago figured out how to use these implants to control objects in a two-dimensional space, and the act of grasping is relatively simple, but maneuvering the robotic arm in three-dimensional space complicates the necessary commands exponentially. “To move from this type of two-dimensional movement to movements involving reaching out for an object, grasping it and then guiding it in three-dimensional space is a huge step for us,” said John Donoghue, director of the Brown Institute for Brain Science.

As with all such scientific breakthroughs, though this seems quite promising, there is still much work to be done. The arm, as is, is a bit too unwieldy for general use, and its actions, while surprisingly dextrous, aren’t exactly on par with the deft movements of the human hand. “We have much more work to do, but the encouraging progress of this research is demonstrated not only in the reach-and-grasp data, but even more so in S3’s smile when she served herself coffee of her own volition for the first time in almost 15 years,” said Dr. Leigh Hockberg, lead author of the BrainGate2 study.

On the positive side, the researchers are quite pleased at how readily the human body has accepted the brain implants. To date, 15 people have been given the devices and none of them have shown ill effects from the procedure. The team’s next goal is to develop a system of reliable wireless transmission that would negate the need for wires attached directly to the implant.

Then, once the robotic arm is up to snuff, the research team hopes to reconfigure the system to send commands directly to a patient’s muscles. That’s still a long ways off, but for those who have severed their spinal cords, it offers a tantalizing possibility of one day being able to control their own bodies again.

Nature has a very impressive video of the robotic arm in action that we would highly recommend you watch. It’s the kind of thing that makes you realize we’re living the sci-fi dreams of our father’s generation.

Wearables

Casio’s all-metal G-Shock uses its smart tech carefully, and for best effect

Casio has proved that not all connected watches have to be complicated, or have poorly designed apps, with its G-Steel GST-B100XA watch. We've been wearing it to see if it's worth the $600 price.
Gaming

The best PS3 games of all time

Choosing the right PlayStation 3 game can be a conundrum, especially when there are nearly 1,500 titles to choose from. Thankfully, we've rounded up the best games to have ever made it to the platform.
Gaming

The hottest Nintendo Switch games you can get right now

The Nintendo Switch's lineup started off small, but games have steadily released as the console continues through its second year. Here are the best Nintendo Switch games available now.
Deals

The 10 best windproof umbrellas to help you weather the storm

The rains have come and they have no mercy. Can your current umbrella handle everything nature can throw at it? Here are 10 of the best windproof umbrella deals available now to help keep you safe and dry.
Emerging Tech

‘Tech vest’ prevents Amazon workers from colliding with robot co-workers

Amazon workers at its fulfillment centers are using "tech vests" to help protect them from collisions with their robot co-workers. The robots already have obstacle avoidance sensors, but the belt offers another layer of safety.
Emerging Tech

3D printers are finally affordable. Here are the best models under $500

3D printer prices have dropped dramatically over the past few years, but just because something is cheap doesn’t mean it’s worth buying. Here, we’ve rounded up all the cheap 3D printers that are actually worth spending your money on.
Mobile

T-Mobile 5G rollout: Here is everything you need to know

2019 will be a huge year for T-Mobile. Not only is a merger with Sprint likely, but T-Mobile is also in the midst of building out its next-generation mobile service. Here's everything you need to know about the T-Mobile 5G rollout.
Emerging Tech

ANYmal dog robot can get back on its feet when someone pushes it over

Roboticists at ETH Zurich have demonstrated how their ANYmal four-legged robot is capable of taking a kicking and keeping on walking -- or getting back to its feet if it's pushed over.
Emerging Tech

A.I. finds non-infringing ways to copy drugs pharma spends billions developing

Researchers have demonstrated an artificial intelligence which can find new methods for producing existing pharmaceuticals in a way that doesn’t infringe on existing patents. Here's how.
Emerging Tech

Coinstar machines will let you swap cash for Bitcoin at your local grocery store

Coinstar, the company which owns the coin exchange machines found at grocery stores and elsewhere, will soon let you easily buy Bitcoin with your cash money. Here's how it will work.
Emerging Tech

Facebook hasn’t given up on the idea of building an internet drone

Facebook's efforts to provide internet connectivity from the skies using solar-powered drones suffered a blow last year when the company abandoned its "Aquila" drone project. But the company clearly hasn't given up on the idea.
Emerging Tech

World’s biggest fleet of campus delivery robots now transporting student meals

The world’s largest fleet of delivery robots on a university campus is coming to Fairfax County, Virginia’s George Mason University. Here's how the ordering and delivery process plays out.
Deals

Smart luggage does it all with wireless charger, built-in scale, GPS tracking

The SkyValet smart luggage, currently being funded on Kickstarter, offers solutions to many common travel struggles. With SkyValet, you no longer need separate portable chargers, a scale to weigh your bag, a lock, or a tracking device. It's…
Emerging Tech

The CRISPR baby saga continues as China confirms second gene-edited pregnancy

China’s official Xinhua news agency has confirmed that a second woman has become pregnant as part of a controversial experiment to create the world’s first genetically edited babies.